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Minority report.

I cherished only two modest ambitions for my visit to this capital of the mummified baroque. The first was to be allowed to attend a legal meeting at which men and women from the human rights movements in the East and the disarmament movements in the West would be attempting to establish a common terrain. The second was to be the first writer in modern history to compose an article from Prague that did not mention Joseph K or his equally imperishable creator. The latter ambition was repeatedly thwarted by the former.

You attend a meeting in a private apartment. An introductory statement is made by a man who was once Foreign Minister of the Republic under Alexander Dubcek but who is now an unperson in Czechoslovakia. There is a knock on the door. Into the apartment come uniformed and plainclothes police, led by a man with eyes so close together that he could comfortably get by with a monocle. While one of his underlings sweeps the room with a video camera, he issues peremptory instructions to depart. At my request, the former Foreign Minister inquires politely if we may know what law has been infringed, and in what respect this law contravenes the Helsinki Accords. He further inquires, on behalf of his foreign guests, if they may telephone their embassies. Neither request is exactly denied. Instead, the police official simply refuses to say on what charge, or for what cause, the Czechoslovaks or the foreigners are being treated in this fashion.

Still striving to avoid the easy resort to Kafka, I talk to one of the Hungarian delegates during the brief period of our segregation together. It reminds me, I say adventurously, of Nabokov's 1947 novel Bend Sinister In this prescient and haunting book, a group of dolts and bullies takes power, under the leadership of the appalling Paduk, in the name of the Party of the Average Man. This pseudopopulist party understands the deadly combination of stupidity and cunning. It specializes in knowing the weak points of the human subject and possesses a ghastly, mediocre patience. My Hungarian friend nods in appreciation but proposes an alternative encapsulation"What we see here," he says"is what Gramsci described as cretinismo eroico."

Next day, while in detention at the police station, we read a crude and fantastic denunciation of one of our Czechoslovak hosts, Petr Uhl, one of the original signatories of Charter 77 and a man who has served almost a decade in prison. He is castigated across several columns of the rubbishy party paper Rude Pravo for being what he actually is--a dangerous leftist. The journal laboriously connects his ideas to those of a certain Trotsky, adding in brackets after this exotic name the explanatory word "Bronstein." Feeling against "cosmopolitans" has never been especially strong in Czechoslovakia, but the view of the Party of the Average Man has long been that every little bit helps.

I have seldom been arrested by such pitiable people, and have never been detained in such distinguished company. Present with me were two women with exemplary records in the movement initiated by Edward Thompson and known throughout Europe as END (European Nuclear Disarmament). There was a representative of the Polish Freedom and Peace group; a leader of the Slovene dissidents in Yugoslavia; and the above-mentioned Hungarian, whose colleagues have recently succeeded in setting up nourishing and independent political clubs in Budapest. There was a woman from India, who has been energetic in the campaign for the victims of Union Carbide in Bhopal. There were two battle-hardened Puerto Rican socialists. The West German Greens, the Dutch antinuclear movement and some interesting revisionists from the Italian left were also in the bag.

But our predicament, and its ironies, was a paltry one when compared with that of our hosts. And here, a simple point that also contradicts Kafka. None of the Czechoslovaks, when being grabbed and driven away, showed the least sign of fear. Jiri Hajek, who, as referred to above, used to be Alexander Dubcek's Foreign Minister, served five years in a camp under the Nazis and has every right to be unimpressed by the relative cretinism of the Czechoslovak quislings of today. But many of those who offered us bed and board were only three or four years old at the time of the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968. And they went, quite confidently and cheerfully, all the way to prison for the sake of our meeting.

It is this, really, that spells defeat for the miserable regime established by Brezhnev two decades ago. As Isaac Deutscher was fond of saying: "Plus c'est la meme chose-plus ca change!' Attempting to freeze and petrify society, the postStalinist apparat has created cynicism and disgust on a colossal scale. Talk to anybody--anybody-in a cafe in Prague and you will encounter that mixture of humor and contempt that negates all the efforts of the conformists.

It does not take a political genius to notice that Rude Pravo never mentions Mikhail Gorbachev unless it has to. It does not take a political genius to observe that the missileflourishing Reagan of a few years ago was a free gift to Rude Pravo and its automaton propagandists. When the brave leaders of Charter 77 issued their invitation East and West (and South), they were explicitly seeking to connect the struggle for democracy to the struggle against militarism. Ever since Chernobyl, it has been easier and more urgent to make internationalist connections between the nuclear menace and the battle against political secrecy and the "security state."

At dusk on the Charles Bridge, small groups of young Czechs gather every night under the statues to play guitars and pass bottles of wine. They sing the forbidden 1968 songs of Marta Kubisova, and the police don't know quite what to do about it. The orders from the top, and from Moscow, are not as direct or as clear as they used to be. The Castle still looms above the city from the Hradcany Hill, but it is inhabited by pygmies who were fished out of the dustbin of history and who whimper in their sleep at the thought of going back to it.
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Title Annotation:meeting of East human rights movements and West disarmament movements in Prague
Author:Hitchens, Christopher
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:column
Date:Jul 16, 1988
Previous Article:Honors and decisions.
Next Article:Great balls of fire.

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